Speaking of Shakespeare: Stephen Burdman: National Arts Club 29 January 2018

I have been very derelict in my duties writing up shows and I hope to start catching up on the old (some very old) in addition to writing up the new.

This Monday, rtb and I went to an interview with Stephen Burdman of New York Classical Theatre for The Shakespeare Guild’s Speaking of Shakespeare program.

I was excited to go for a couple of reasons. We’d been enjoying the New York Classical Theatre’s productions at Central Park, Battery Park, and Brooklyn Bridge Park since 2011 and I’ve always wanted to go inside The National Arts Club in Gramercy Park where the event was being held. As soon as you enter, this man jumps out from another room and, after you tell him why you’re there, he tells you to hang up your coat in the coatroom downstairs. It’s not a suggestion or a request but an order given in a smiling voice. While downstairs I looked around at the exhibitions, which are free and open to the public (I didn’t know that!). My favorite was the collection of Goya drawings. Fourteen of the drawings from Los Caprichos (1799) were on display. The volume had been donated in 1994 and miscatalogued and not found until 2014.

The interview took place in the sculpture room upstairs. The building is old with carpeted stairs and lovely chandeliers and light fixtures throughout. I passed a party or reception, walked down a long empty hallway, and turned into the room. On a stage were two old upholstered chairs with mics in front of each chair. Some of the members from the party joined the audience.

Burdman started us off with a three-minute promotional video. We later found out that they are not allowed to film full productions of the plays – something to do with the actors’ union I think? They film parts of it, which is used for promotion but any full-length videos are for archive purposes only.

I already knew from seeing the plays in the parks that Burdman was warm and engaging. He is the one who welcomes us to every production. The room was small and probably didn’t need to be mic’d – especially since Burdman’s voice is so clear and loud.

I didn’t take any notes so I’m trying to remember all that he talked about. New York Classical Theatre only uses professional actors. They receive health insurance and are paid full-time during rehearsal and for performances. The rehearsal time is short – shorter than it was when they first started because of finances. I believe they only rehearse for three weeks and that includes tech. All rehearsals take place in the parks where they are going to be performed, so the performers get to learn their blocking on the spot. And if you happen to be passing by, you can sit and watch. There’s a vocal coach who teaches them how to project – there are no mics. They face the audience every time they speak so that they can be heard (especially with all the city noises surrounding them). When they cross a “room” they walk in an arc instead of a straight line. There’s a reason for that which wasn’t fully explained. These are all things that I’m going to have to pay attention to in future productions.

Next year will be their 20th, so because of all the work in preparing for that, this summer there will only be one production – Romeo and Juliet. There will only be six actors – the two playing Romeo and Juliet and then two Montagues and two Capulets with those actors changing clothes (in front of the audience) depending on what part they’re playing in the moment.

Quick changes are easy because of Velcro. You can’t use it in a theater because of the noise but outside you can’t hear it.

They’ve put on plays by other authors besides Shakespeare (I haven’t seen any yet but look forward to seeing them).

Burdman kind of fell into being the artistic director of this company. He did something in NYC and was asked by the actors to stay and direct them. He didn’t set out to be a director whose focus was Shakespeare. But you can see his excitement when he talks about how he will relate parts of some of the plays to his life. When asked about how he makes decisions on what to cut (according to Burdman, no Shakespeare play was meant to be performed in its entirety as written and that even in Shakespeare’s time they cut sections out of the plays), Burdman said there are different reasons why one scene is cut or part of a monologue is cut. And it changes. He may have cut one section in his younger days that didn’t seem important then but now that he’s older, married, and has a child, that same scene may carry far greater significance.

As with any live performance, the audience is part of it. A dead audience can kill a performance. And when audience members cry out, the actors are taught to acknowledge what’s happening around them. There was one scene where an actor was supposed to be hiding but there was no place for him to hide in the location, so he picked up a small child in the audience and hid behind him (now that kid’s father is on their board of directors).

Once there was scene taking place at a tree that was hollow. A raccoon poked his head out and looked around at the audience and performers. For another play, two Jack Russell terriers came running towards the actor, who was playing a king (Richard III?) who would have owned Jack Russell terriers. The actors just go with it. He didn’t mention last summer in Brooklyn Bridge Park when I watched bats fly over the heads of the actors. I don’t know what they would have done if one had landed.

A lot of college students today grew up watching New York Classical Theatre productions in the parks. That also please Burdman. It’s definitely an experience you want to go back to again and again because it is never the same twice. My favorite was probably my first when we saw Henry V, which started in England (Battery Park), then we crossed the “channel” via ferry, got to France (Governors Island), watched the battle, and then returned to England via ferry. There was a scene on the ferry, which we found out had to be acted out three times because there were three levels to the ferry. rtb and I had been wondering about that – we thought we’d missed some crucial scenes that had happened in other sections of the ferry.

But, of course, what sets New York Classical Theatre apart from other free Shakespeare experiences is that it’s panoramic. We, the audience, get up and follow the actors from scene to scene all over the park. We’re led by musicians or witches or sometimes an actor will just turn to us and say, “Come on,” while he waves his hand to indicate that we should follow him. It’s the only all free professional theater in NYC and I’m so lucky to be able to enjoy it summer after summer.

By Carene Lydia Lopez